Kirk Word and Sam Dillon Aim to Film a Pandemic
Austin-based filmmakers hit the road at the height of coronavirus fears for ‘COVID Crusades’
By Aaron Parsley
Austin-based filmmakers Kirk Word and Sam Dillon had a couple of projects in the works at the start of 2020, back when a coronavirus outbreak in China was a world away and not yet a pandemic. By mid-March, COVID-19 was spreading around the world, and their film projects — like many businesses, SXSW in Austin and any semblance of normal life — were halted.
“We were basically unemployed,” Word says. “The two decisions facing me were: buy a sailboat and quarantine by taking off on adventure and resume our planned projects after COVID-19 or gamble every resource available to document the pandemic while trying to raise money to help.”
The pair decided on the latter and began to plan an arduous road trip to film the fallout and response to the virus spread in the U.S. “In late March, I received a phone call from Kirk. He explained that we needed to switch gears and tackle the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dillon says. “We felt a calling to document such a massive event in our lifetime.”
Their new pursuit — to film the pandemic caused by a novel virus barely understood by scientists, doctors and policy makers — was a risk. “We began to worry,” Dillon says. “We had a crucial conversation about a week before we left where we both expressed our fears about the trip, basically asking each other if we were crazy for doing this. We both agreed we were and decided at that moment … we would have to handle it with extreme safety measures.”
Preview COVID Crusades above.
With production coordinator Gabriella Shemer assisting and guiding from Austin, the men left in an RV, heading towards Los Angeles to begin the non-profit film project called COVID Crusades. “Getting to L.A. in mid-April was a shock,” Word recalls of seeing a city in lockdown. “It had the feeling of a place where people were traumatized and scared. My thoughts were, if a city the size of L.A. had come to a complete standstill, then this thing is going to wreak havoc.”
They also found so much to be hopeful about. Word, Dillon and Shemer recently answered questions about the ambitious COVID Crusades and what they discovered about the age of COVID-19. Their answers below have been edited for brevity.
What made you want to document the stories of the pandemic?
Kirk Word: It was obvious to us early on that everything about the pandemic needed to be recorded. The fear and panic it caused had people thinking differently and acting in a way that seemed to be more focused on self-preservation … It was an intense moment in time with possible outcomes as broad as the spectrum of emotions and opinions we were experiencing.
During your travels, have you experienced more hope or despair?
Sam Dillon: On some days, we were impressed with the ways everyday people were handling the virus. Everyone we interacted with was being safe and courteous. On other days, we couldn’t help but feel angered about how nonchalant our national government was acting at first. I felt hopeless for the working-class people who were risking their lives everyday just to put food on the table. Kirk and I tried our best to reassure each other and keep positive on the road. The more stories we heard, the more inspired we were, and that always pulled us out of a bad mood.
KW: The numbers speak for themselves when evaluating the effectiveness of our leadership on a national level. It’s hard to ignore that a country making up less than five percent of the global population is responsible for over 25 percent of COVID-19 cases. The silver lining in those numbers is the responsible local and regional leadership that has been effective handling the pandemic.
Gabriella Shemer: I vacillate, but always try to end my day on feelings of hope. Despair makes us weak and lose touch with our creative spirits. If we are healthy and we are capable, the burden of fighting the pandemic rests on all of us, and we’re no use if we’re complaining about poor leadership.
What else gives you hope?
SD: Communities are coming together and good people are showing their true colors. It has given me more faith in my fellow humans, for the most part.
GS: The momentum of humanity remembering its need for one another. I love talking to people about what it will be like when this is all over. That phrase is now such common vernacular: “When this is all over.” Not being able to hug your family, travel to see friends or share a meal has had such a profound impact on our psyche and has brought up some really loving and creative ways to express intimacy … Humanity, in all its foibles and fiascos, gives me hope.
Is there anything you’ve learned elsewhere worth sharing with people in Austin and Texas as cases climb here?
KW: Do not miss Episode 3 and our interview with the executive director of Seattle’s downtown homeless shelter, Daniel Malone. He explains what the city and community has done to avoid the potential disaster they were facing. Seattle is a gem and should be the model that all other cities are following to get through COVID-19.
What’s your take on “getting back to normal” in this country?
KW: There will definitely be new norms – in everything. What we consistently noticed throughout the 5,765 miles we traveled were owners being extremely creative to help their businesses survive, offering services that were light years from their normal.
A lot of fight or flight seems to be kicking in and it seems to be gravitating to a more organic and local-oriented lifestyle. A lot of us will come out of this with a new appreciation for many things we took for granted in our lives. Many families will come out of this stronger, with less of the stimuli they were conditioned to need replaced with more meaningful relationships they find more gratifying.
We will be reset across a broad spectrum of behavior and the ways we think about life after COVID-19. Hopefully, we all learn something from this, and the fight makes us all better.
Wood and Dillon’s work is funded in part on Patreon, where backers can select a membership in various low-cost increments to support the project and unlock content created for the film, including episodes and behind-the-scenes footage. Future proceeds of the film will be donated to organizations helping those affected by COVID-19. An advisory committee has been selected to oversee the management of the filmmaking process as well as the distribution of funds raised that go beyond production costs.